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If you’re tuned into the natural hair movement at all, you’ve heard a lot of talk about sulfates over the years, mostly about how terrible they are. According to many curly hair gurus, hair products that contain sulfates can strip all of the moisture from delicate curly hair, resulting in dryness, frizz and damage. But lots of shampoos contain sulfates. Are they really all that harmful?

The answer isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are both pros and cons to sulfates, and understanding how they work will help you figure out the right shampoo for you.

What Are Sulfates, Anyway?

Sulfates are detergents. They’re the ingredient that makes your shampoo lather into that satisfyingly sudsy consistency. They’re in all kinds of products, not only shampoo but also soap, dish detergent, toothpaste and tons of other foam-y products. The most common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate.

Sulfates are certainly harsher than natural cleansers — they really get in there and clean. All that lather results in a squeaky-clean feeling. By the same token, they strip the skin and hair of much of its moisture and oil.

Who Should Use Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

The problem with sulfates is that they can be too stripping. Your hair needs some amount of oil and moisture to feel and look healthy. This is especially important if you have hair that is dry, fragile, kinky, curly or coarse. By using sulfates on your hair regularly, you set yourself up for a game of perpetual catch-up, trying to restore the moisture from your hair that your shampoo keeps taking away.

Sulfate-free shampoo is also useful for people with delicate skin, since the ingredient can cause redness or irritation.

Lastly, if you have dyed hair, consider switching to a sulfate-free shampoo. Sulfates strip the dye from your hair prematurely.

Sulfate-free shampoo isn’t for everyone, though. If your scalp tends to be quite greasy or oily and needs to be washed often, sulfates could work wonderfully for you. Also, if you have dandruff or another scalp condition, you’ll definitely want to stick with a shampoo with sulfates and other active ingredients to cut down on the flakes.

Alternatives to Sulfates

Some people enjoy using products with sulfates simply because it’s satisfying — you get a rich lather, and it feels like it’s easy to get clean. Other products may require more scritching and scratching. However, sulfates are just one of several “surfactants” that lather up. Others, like cocobetaines (derived from coconut oil) have a similar effect and are not quite as harsh.

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